The Lady and the Sharks

Bookshelf: The Lady and the Sharks

The Lady and the Sharks – Eugenie Clark

The Lady and the Sharks
The Lady and the Sharks

Eugenie Clark is an ichthyologist who was the founding director of what is now the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida (originally the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory). Just out of university in 1955, she was offered a dream position as director of a marine lab that didn’t exist yet, thanks to a generous grant. The lab was started in a prefab building next to a jetty on the gorgeous Florida coastline.

Clark’s interest has been in poisonous fish and in shark behaviour, and she conducted many experiments on lemon sharks – training them to perform tasks in response to stimuli. Her account of a lemon shark that essentially died of shock after being (she suspects) over-trained using a white target that he pressed on to get dinner, is interesting. When the white target was switched with a yellow one, the shark got such a shock that he stopped eating, and ultimately wasted away. Her training of sharks raises interesting questions – as pointed out by my brilliant husband – in the debate around chumming. Those in favour of chumming by shark cage operators argue that the sharks are not habituated to associate food with boats or cages. The ease with which Clark and her associates trained lemon sharks, nurse sharks and others, however, is an interesting counter to this claim.

The book is more autobiography than scientific treatise, and the early chapters have an idyllic Gerald Durrell feel to them as Clark starts the laboratory and spends her days doing what the rest of us dream of as a job… Collecting fish specimens, pottering around on the beach, diving to observe the local marine life, and (I don’t dream of this) dissecting large sharks and rays to study their bodies. She managed to integrate motherhood with her work, allowing her children to be very involved in the daily activities at the lab, and introducing each of them to the ocean at a young age.

The book was originally published in 1969, but the edition I read has an updated afterword and footnotes. Clark mentions that in 2010, for her 88th birthday, she came to Cape Town to dive with the broadnose sevengill cowsharks at Shark Alley. I hope that I’m still diving at that age.

The book is available here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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